Marthélize Tredoux: On tasting room service

Tasting roomThere is an issue that’s been causing me high blood pressure and a battered liver from all the therapeutic wine I’ve been caused to drink. It’s an issue relevant to the majority of our wineries: tasting rooms.

Yes, our beloved tasting rooms, with their carefully cultivated ambience, normally in a setting of glorious natural beauty and obviously with superb wine offerings. There’s a big problem in our little corners of vino nirvana – a culture of mediocrity and sub-par customer service.

(Disclaimer: I work with tasting rooms. I’m familiar with the management of all types: small and boutique to large and commercial and everything in between. I’m not writing this because I once had an underwhelming experience and have been waiting to whine about it. I’m also pointing out very pervasive but very general issues – there is also a long list of wineries that very much get it right.)

Firstly, I find it worrying how undervalued tasting rooms sometimes are by winery owners or management. You have an outlet where the public literally comes to you (often unbidden and uninfluenced by marketing or advertising) to sample and purchase your wine. Yet the level of investment in the tasting room itself or the staff can be minimal – some wineries seem to view it as an annoying expense rather than a tool not only for sales but for creating a lasting link to your customer base. Sealing the deal with a customer through an informative and entertaing and hence memorable experience can create a customer for life and a source of word-of-mouth advertising that doesn’t cost you another cent.

This brings me to the next problem – ineffective staff management, training and hiring practices. With the summer silly season approaching, many wineries are in the process of hiring extra casual staff for the coming months – often students looking for summer jobs. Nothing wrong with that. But when you hire extra hands with no consideration for whether or not they actually know or care about wine, you’re digging yourself a hole. Friends informed me of a recent experience at a winery where they walked in and before even sitting down, the casual tells them “I’m new here, so please don’t ask me any questions”. Hilarious, right? It would be, if it weren’t such a perfect illustration of the problem.

Let’s not even start on inconsistency. After an enjoyable, professional experience at a prominent Franschhoek farm, friends visited the same tasting room less than two weeks later, on my recommendation. Their experience was the polar opposite. Same winery. Same staff. Less than 14 days apart. Or what about another top Franschhoek winery with the most uninspired staff I’ve ever encountered, where the visit was crowned by one staff member responding to the question of which dish a vegetarian could pair with the Syrah by mumbling “Umm, vegetables?” and walking off. True story.

I know these examples don’t sound horrific (and truly, I’ve experienced far worse). But they’re everywhere, and THAT is the problem. Mediocrity is the acceptable norm and frankly, that’s not good enough. I’m not well traveled but I did visit a couple of Napa wineries recently and I was blown away by the standard of customer service. Sure, they also have their bad apples and mediocre employees, but being dead average is neither as prevalent nor as acceptable as it is here.

The problem has many possible causes – tasting room managers are either not up scratch or if they are, they may be prevented from doing their best for whatever reason. I’m reminded of the classic Corporate Dilemma: “What if we train them and they leave? / What if we don’t, and they stay?”. It’s no great leap to see that properly trained staff provides better customer experiences – and that a better customer experience leads to improved sales. And yet, it’s a leap many wineries seemingly fail to make.

I become faint with frustration when I hear how much wineries spend on marketing, advertising, social media, brand building exercises, promotions and giving away cash and freebies to bleggers and vultures when their very own tasting room is a shambles. It’s time to get your (front of) house in order.

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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  1. FrancoiseNovember 4, 2015 at 12:13 pmReply

    Another point:
    Why do almost all tasting rooms close so early in summer? There are at least 3 hours of sunlight left after they shut … I have often done a tour where after lunch we have time for only one more winery before they shut.

  2. FrancoiseNovember 4, 2015 at 12:09 pmReply

    Let’s look at it from a tourism point of view. Doing a winelands tour is one of the 2 or 3 must-do things in Cape Town for all tourists (even those who don’t drink wine, so that says a lot). I’m a tour guide and I take people tasting often. Because tastes differ and wine is such a subjective issue, it doesn’t always matter which winery I take people to. What does matter and what does make me choose a place is the tasting experience.

    I don’t bother much with the large estates that are too commercial and impersonal. I go where the staff are:
    friendly – greet us, make us feel welcome;
    attentive – don’t disappear for ages;
    knowledgeable – you don’t have to be an expert but it helps if you know and enjoy the wine yourself, take the odd sip too so you can show that you want to compare this bottle to another one perhaps;
    flexible – throw in an extra taste of the special stuff if it’s called for, waive the cost if the client only tastes one wine;
    personal – tell us your favourite, show that you drink this at home;

    It’s not a supermarket, it’s not a factory – it’s a very personal experience. I have witnessed clients who didn’t like the wines but loved the experience because of the staff. That’s the memory they’ll take home with them and talk about.

    Finally, don’t push the overseas ordering system before clients have even finished tasting!!

  3. BethNovember 3, 2015 at 11:55 amReply

    Yes, It’s one of my big gripes. The wineries seem to employ students who are untrained – and worse – VERY unfriendly. And then, you have to pay quite exorbitant tasting prices (e.g. R50 for 3-5 wines tasted).

    But there are exceptions – I gather from previous comments that it is not done to mention specific wineries. About a year ago, I visited on some Saturdays quite a few small wineries in the Bottelary area and had wonderful experiences where staff went out of their way to make it exceptional. Paarl usually better than Stellenbosch except for one near Spier estate on the same road.

    • MarthelizeNovember 3, 2015 at 5:52 pmReply

      Hi Beth,

      Well, I don’t think mentioning some good examples will be frowned upon – but in my experience for each great service you have a Winery X, someone is likely to come back matching your praise with a terrible service – consistency seems to be the main issue but I know from experience it’s a complex thing with a lot of factors contributing.

      Small wineries are often (but not always) great at it because they’re usually not crowded and the staff are able to give a more personal experience – something that would be difficult to achieve in a much bigger tasting room, say on the busiest Saturday in the middle of December.

      But there’s miles of space for improvement…

  4. WihanNovember 3, 2015 at 11:53 amReply

    Hi Marthelize

    I agree with you wholeheartedly!

    We in front are the ONLY physical connection (except for the wine of course) that most people will EVER have with the winery! So it is of utmost importance that the frontlines are in ship-shape.

    Thanks for this; I hope that all owners/managers of wineries read this. Good tasting room staff are valuable.

    • MarthelizeNovember 3, 2015 at 5:57 pmReply

      Wihan, I KNOW there are good tasting rooms and staff out there… we just need more!

      It’s not going to improve overnight but I hope a few people take note, at least. I honestly suspect it’s a main cause for loss of sales – I know I won’t buy from a place where the service is mediocre (or worse – horrible!)

  5. Adam CowellNovember 3, 2015 at 11:44 amReply

    Why this obsession at some tasting rooms to charge for the tasting. I often just want to taste one or two of the baffles most of the staff! Thumbs up to fellow doing the tasting at Glen Carlou on Sunday and thumbs down to the girl at Uva Mira. always interesting when the staff member assumes you are a complete novice and they have no knowledge themselves.

    • MarthelizeNovember 3, 2015 at 5:55 pmReply

      Hi Adam

      Tricky one – in theory I agree with you, but I would hazard a guess it comes down to how the staff are managed in terms of thinking for themselves (or even being allowed to make reasonable calls) when a person only wants to have a taste of one or two wines.

      Often it does come down to the staff (ridiculously) getting in trouble when they allow it – other times it’s perfectly reasonable and sensible. Suppose some tasting room managers are just more Draconian (and not necessarily reasonable) about things…

  6. Colyn TruterOctober 23, 2015 at 5:05 pmReply

    Check this guy out at a friend of mine’s winery, Peju in Napa.

    • MarthelizeOctober 24, 2015 at 1:03 pmReply

      Wow. Love that. What’s great is, of the couple of wineries I visited (even late afternoon on a Friday on a super hot day) the staff ALL had levels of energy and enthusiasm that seemed to be both infectious and the norm.

  7. Phillip MeiringOctober 22, 2015 at 12:06 pmReply

    If you pay people peanuts, it’s likely you will be employing monkeys.

  8. GP TerblancheOctober 22, 2015 at 6:45 amReply

    Unfortunately you are spot on, Marthelize! Wineries mostly just wants a body in the front and if that body is attractive or maybe previously disadvantaged, so much the better. Wineries aren’t prepared to pay the premium for knowledgeable and competent tasting room staff. On a recent visit to Margaret River and Barossa in Australia, I was blown away by the level of service at the cellar doors. The majority of Cape wineries (there are exceptions) still have a hell of a lot to learn.

    • MarthelizeOctober 24, 2015 at 1:06 pmReply

      Hi GP,
      Yep – you’re hitting the nail on the head there. There ARE many exceptions and I’m happy to share them off-line but even in the better teams, there’s usually a mix of really great people and a few stragglers. The larger the staff complement, the more likely there’s one or two star staff members, a bunch of average ones and one or two stragglers.
      I also know a lot of the tasting room managers have to work on tight budgets, with senior management not allowing them much wiggle room in terms of innovation – while others are just mediocre or just plain bad at their jobs, but it goes unnoticed. There’s a lot of work to do still, but nothing will change until management realises simple fixes can bring around massive improvements.

  9. Hennie TaljaardOctober 21, 2015 at 9:32 pmReply

    I stopped doing tasting rooms a long time ago. It’s an insult to one’s intelligence.

    • MarthelizeOctober 24, 2015 at 1:09 pmReply

      Hi Hennie,
      Well, a certain “level” of wine geek/lover/nerd/whatever you want to call it doesn’t really gain much from a typical tasting room experience. But there are a few places that offer great, informative experiences – typically with staff that convey the things you already know with such enthusiasm or charm that you listen as if you’re hearing it for the first time. They’re few and far between though. But when even a perfectly average person with no more than basic wine knowledge is bored or – even worse – snubbed by winery staff, then you’re insulting the largest chunk of your clientele and THAT is a problem.

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